City Council may put stop to opening prayer at meetings

City staff are expected to ask councillors to take a break on benedictions before meetings following Supreme Court ruling on religion in council chambers.

Report expected in wake of Supreme Court ruling against Catholic prayer in Quebec council meetings

Coun. Amarjeet Sohi says Edmonton's prayers represent a wide variety of faiths, but that the practice should still be examined. (CBC)

For almost four decades, nearly every Edmonton city council has started the same way: an opening prayer.

That tradition might soon change, with city staff expected to ask councillors to take a break from the benedictions following a Supreme Court ruling on religion in council chambers.

"I think we need to make sure that under procedures we're doing the right thing and doing it in the right way," said Coun. Amarjeet Sohi.

The suggestion to drop the prayer comes in the wake of an April 15 ruling by the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the court said the practice of starting municipal meetings in Saguenay, Quebec, with a Catholic prayer was an infringement of freedom of religion and conscience rights.

"The state must instead remain neutral in this regard," the judgement read.

"This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief."

Tuesday, city staff will ask councillors stop holding the opening prayer as they investigate how the judgement relates to Edmonton.

Sohi said Edmonton's opening prayers were worth examining, he was quick to point out that the situation was very different from that in Quebec.

While Saguenay began its meetings with a Catholic prayer, Sohi said Edmonton's council meetings start with reflections from a wide variety of beliefs — including Christian and Muslim prayers, aboriginal blessings and secular poems among others. .

"Our prayers at the start of council meetings are very inclusive," he said.

"So, it's not just faith-based prayers. (It's) more about reflection who we are as a community and the diversity we have."

Nevertheless, Sohi said the city needs to make sure everyone, religious and non-religious alike, feel represented by the council.

Many other cities across the country have made moves to remove the religious aspect from their municipal meetings. Calgary now holds a moment of silence before their council sessions, while Ottawa has stopped the practice completely.

However, Rob Hankinson feels the city will lose out on something important if councillors decide to stop the prayers. As a member of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre, which helps arrange the people who offer prayers at council, he argues the prayers do not exclude anyone.

Instead, Hankinson believes the practice helps people connect with different faiths.

"If it's valuable for the life of the city let's continue to do it," he said.

"The prayers come from the community. They're offered by a variety of people, men and women. They respect various traditions and faiths of those represented in Edmonton."

The report on the effect of the Supreme Court ruling and any changes to city policy is expected by June.


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